Snug as a Bug in a Rug: Swaddling Your Baby
You may have received a swaddling blanket as a baby shower gift. Or maybe you learned swaddling as part of the nurses’ teaching in the hospital after your birth or in a childbirth preparation class. But what you may still be asking yourself is: What are the benefits of swaddling, and are there any risks?
Swaddling has been done over the ages and across cultures, and is best described as wrapping your baby tightly in a light blanket to create a soothing, womb-like environment. Being snug in a blanket helps baby feel warm and secure.
Critics of swaddling suggest babies do better when they are kept in kangaroo-care or skin-to-skin with their mothers instead of swaddling, especially if they are breastfeeding. Swaddled babies tend to sleep longer – a seeming boon for tired new parents. This longer stretch of sleep, however, can keep baby from exhibiting hunger cues and may lead to missed feedings. Missed feedings mean less breast stimulation, which can ultimately lead to low milk supply. As babies get older and breastfeeding is well-established, skin-to-skin time can still be used for calming a fussy baby, as well as alternatives to swaddling such as babywearing.
Another caution about swaddling comes from the International Hip Dysplasia Institute – research has shown babies swaddled too tightly with their legs together or straight down are at an increased risk of hip dysplasia and dislocation. The IHDI suggests if you choose to swaddle your baby, you keep the baby’s legs in a fetal position – with the legs bent and out at the hips. Leaving the feet and legs loose when swaddling also allows the baby to assume a natural body position that limits the potential for harm to the soft hip joints.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has weighed in on swaddling, as well, saying that it not only calms a baby, but also helps a baby sleep. At the same time, the AAP cautions that fewer arousals are a risk factor for SIDS. Putting babies on their backs to sleep – whether swaddled or not – is one way to lessen the risk. Also, be sure to swaddle baby securely, so that blankets don’t come loose during sleep and pose a suffocation hazard.
Swaddling can be especially helpful for a baby with colic. Because the incessant crying can cause parents stress and anxiety, finding ways of not only calming baby but of getting a break from the fussiness are paramount. Swaddling can be one part of that calming routine, and can help parents cope more effectively with their baby’s colic.
As you set up your own swaddling plan, consider the following:
- Even when swaddled babies need to be placed on their backs to sleep.
- While the blanket should be snug to create the tight, womb-like feeling, it should be loose enough so it’s not constrictive. Slide your hand between baby’s chest and the blanket – it should feel as if you’ve put your hand in your waistband.
- Make sure the blanket isn’t too loose so that it doesn’t pose a suffocation risk. Keep in mind loose ends that touch baby’s face can elicit the rooting reflex and keep baby from calming. So, tuck ends in as you wrap.
- Use swaddling sparingly: Babies need some time unswaddled to use their arms and legs to learn about their world and to develop properly.
- Use a “hip healthy” swaddling technique as promoted by the International Hip Dysplasia Institute. They have a video describing this technique here.
- Keep baby from overheating by using a light blanket and dressing baby in light clothing under the swaddling blanket. Keep in mind the ambient room temperature and watch for signs of overheating, such as sweating, flushed cheeks, rapid breathing, etc.
- Be sure baby isn’t missing feedings, especially if he’s breastfed. You may have to wake him to eat.
- Once baby can roll over on his own, swaddling should stop. Babies typically begin to roll between 4 and 6 months of age.
Keep in mind that swaddling alone may not be enough to completely calm a baby, especially a colicky baby. But when used safely and in combination with other techniques, swaddling can give you some rest and can give baby a sense of security.